Hurray for the Riff Raff Brings Folk Into the Twenty-First Century

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Photo by Sarrah Danzinger

In 2015, there’s no dearth of American folk music revivalists. Beyond the prevailing legacy acts that continue to tour (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the list goes on … ), there’s a new generation of artists for whom analog instrumentation, earnest lyrics, and the American songwriting tradition are as timely as ever. A glance at any summer music festival lineup is bound to reveal at least a handful of rising indie folk acts as well as a few bands who have conquered the charts with guitars, banjos, and fiddles in tow. Yet few of these artists feel as vital as Alynda Lee Segarra and her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff. Not content to merely emulate the aesthetics of Americana music, Segarra marries folk traditions of the twentieth century with current political concerns.

Segarra was born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in the Bronx. At seventeen, she left New York and traveled the country aboard freight trains, eventually finding her way to New Orleans, where she became enamored with the city’s musical traditions. She busked on the street with a group of musicians, playing washboard and banjo for tips, before finally writing songs of her own.

Last year’s Small Town Heroes is Hurray for the Riff Raff’s fifth album and their major label debut. It’s garnered praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NPR. On the album, the band successfully explores a multitude of American folk traditions, from the Appalachian-style of the album opener, “Blue Ridge Mountain,” to the honky tonk feel of “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright).”

“I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)”

But where many modern-day folk artists are content with merely aesthetics, Hurray for the Riff Raff is committed to using their platform for championing issues of social justice. Continue reading

A Malian Master Returns to Los Angeles

This week, the Skirball continues its nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts with Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, who will perform songs from their celebrated new album, Ba Power. I thought I would take this chance to break down Kouyaté’s musical lineage and show why this Thursday night the Skirball will be the best place to experience the future of Malian music.

Bassekou Kouyate with first-born son Madu, right, his wife Amy and their son Moustapha.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba: (left to right) Moustapha Kouyaté, Bassekou Kouyaté, Amy Sacko, and Madu Kouyaté.

Since exploding onto the scene in 2007, Bassekou Kouyaté has established himself as a leading world musician, appearing at major music festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD in support of three critically acclaimed albums. He has played and collaborated with such esteemed musicians as Taj Mahal, Paul McCartney, and Damon Albarn. To those who have seen him perform live, Kouyaté’s extraordinary rise may come as no surprise, but his career trajectory appears more unexpected on paper.

Kouyaté descends from a long line of griots, Continue reading

Looking Back at D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968)

The Skirball’s Friday Night Rock Docs series continues this summer with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) on July 31 and Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982) on August 21. In order to get ready for these screenings of landmark rock docs, I decided to delve a little into the history of the genre—with particular focus on D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968), which kicked off the Skirball series on Friday, June 19.

A barrage of liquid light show images choreographed to the shrill screams and pulsating rhythms of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two” opens Monterey Pop. In this somewhat disorienting opening sequence, Pennebaker immediately sets the documentary—depicting events at the Monterey Pop Festival, which occurred Friday, June 16–Sunday, June 18, 1967—apart from its generic predecessors. This film is not just about the counterculture; Pennebaker employs a style that represents the counterculture’s subversive values both visually and aurally.

Watch Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, perform “Combination of the Two” live at the Monterey Pop Festival. A recording of the song plays over the opening credit sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop.

Prior to the release of Monterey Pop and his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was perhaps best known for his affiliation with the Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and David and Albert Maysles. Together, these filmmakers furthered a documentary style known as Direct Cinema, largely the product of the new lightweight camera and sound equipment developed in the 1950s. Unlike many conventional documentarians before them, champions of this new style did not use staged reenactments, voiceover narration, or extensive onscreen text to explain their subjects. Instead, they strove for objectivity and immediacy in their films, capturing events as they happened and allowing people to tell their own stories.

In many ways, Monterey Pop assumes the stylistic goals of Direct Cinema. Continue reading

La Chiva Gantiva: Remixing Music and Identity


From the wild energy of their Afro-Colombian rhythms to the exuberant sound of their horn riffs, the West Coast debut of La Chiva Gantiva will be a stellar kick-off to the Skirball’s nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts this Thursday, July 23.

The Brussels-based ensemble emerged from three Colombian students who wanted to incorporate more of their roots into their favorite contemporary genres, like rock and Afrobeat. To make this Belgian-Colombian fusion even more enticing, they recruited additional Belgian members along with musicians from both France and Vietnam. Thus began their journey into a multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-genre music movement.

I have a special affinity towards this group as they evoke in me a certain nostalgia for my study abroad experience, specifically my time in French bars with Colombian housemates. All of La Chiva Gantiva’s funky songs will get your head banging, but the song “Pelao” (which translates to “kid”) and its music video were what hooked me. The video juxtaposes aggressive French and Spanish verses with a paper-constructed scene of Brussels. With the French I am able to decipher, it seems the song is a dialogue on Colombian identity, displacement, and the deconstruction of stereotypes. This was an all-too-familiar conversation for my Colombian housemate, as he often felt excluded abroad and would always have to fend off the stereotype of Colombians as cocaine traffickers. But like La Chiva Gantiva, he overcame adversity by tackling it head-on through restless song and dance.

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Among the commotion of the piñata smashing and flamingo hats, I was able to spot the Vietnamese saxophonist Tuan Ho Duc, who sports a Vietnamese flag shirt that is also found on their Pelao album cover. Being of Vietnamese descent, I never feel like my culture is represented in the larger music scene, so witnessing Duc’s full-blown pride makes me appreciate the band even more.

With the rising popularity of Pelao, La Chiva Gantiva was able to tour throughout Europe and even hopped the pond to the US for a South by Southwest appearance. They have since released a second album, Vivo, which is spearheading festivals from Canada all the way to Benin. The Skirball is proud to present La Chiva Gantiva at Sunset Concerts this coming Thursday, their single West Coast stop this summer.

 

Arthur Pham is the 2015 LA County Arts Commission Intern for the Program Department. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he studied geography and was a producer for JazzReggae Festival, so he particularly enjoys seeing the impact of music and art in different cultures. In his free time, he can be found photographing portraits or thrifting a new outfit.

President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2015

Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Over six Thursday evenings every summer, we welcome thousands of visitors to our Sunset Concerts. Global and local artists take the stage to uplift the audience with their music and unite us in song and dance.

This summer, I am particularly looking forward to experiencing the Yuval Ron Ensemble, who will perform a special program entitled “My Heart Is in the East: Mystical Music and Dance of the Hebrew Tribes.” Named after the Israeli-born musician, composer, and educator, the Yuval Ron Ensemble innovates upon traditional pan–Middle Eastern music, including Armenian, Levantine, Arabic, Bedouin, Sephardic, and Roma styles.

Lately I have had the pleasure of listening to the band’s exquisite repertoire. To me, it conveys a hopeful calm. Theirs is the music that plays in my head when I recall driving through the desert hills between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea—both as a child before immigrating to America and as an adult visiting my native land. I am moved by this soundtrack to my cherished memories of Israel. Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971. Photo by John Olson. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading

Pasatono Orquesta Revives a Tradition, With a Twist

Come hear Pasatono Orquesta fill our Ahmanson Hall with Mexican folk tunes sure to get your whole family on their feet.

Come hear Pasatono Orquesta fill our Ahmanson Hall with Mexican folk tunes sure to get your whole family on their feet.

The Skirball’s annual Hanukkah Family Festival approaches, and this year the festivities take inspiration from Latin American culture. Along with Mexican tin art painting, mariachi and Capoeira performances, and Latin American–influenced Hanukkah treats, don’t miss out on seeing Oaxaca’s Pasatono Orquesta.

Pasatono Orquesta has made a name for itself over the last fifteen years by reinterpreting traditional Mexican folk music. The group’s latest album, Maroma, pays tribute to the traveling circuses that were once popular throughout rural Mexico. These maroma, as they were called, consisted of a single clown tasked with juggling, telling jokes, reciting poetry, and performing acrobatics, drawing inspiration from a mixture of pre-Hispanic indigenous traditions, European street performances, and modern circus elements. Continue reading

Go Ask Alice (Russell)

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Photo by Kenny McCracken.

Alice Russell’s most recent album, To Dust, is a collection of soulful torch songs about unwavering tenacity in the midst of spurned love. Her live shows are raw and gritty affairs—her vocal acrobatics flying effortlessly across funky grooves and R&B beats. In celebration of indie label Tru Thoughts Recordings’ fifteenth anniversary, Russell performs live at the Skirball on October 24, with openers Lost Midas and The Seshen. I asked Russell to share some thoughts about her music career, her songwriting process, and where in L.A. she’ll be visiting while she’s here.

It’s been ten years since you released your debut album, Under the Munka Moon. How has a decade affected your music? 

Time has sprinted past. I have opened up over time. Over this decade I toured a lot, and that, bit by bit, forced me to really open up on stage and, in turn, in the studio. I have had the privilege to visit amazing places to perform and record, and these experiences can’t help but affect the music that I am now making. Continue reading

Echoing the Creole Past, Charting Zydeco’s Future

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One of the best parts of my job is that I have the privilege of working closely with the musicians we present. When preparing for our concerts, I like to listen to each band and familiarize myself with the history of the music they play as a way of getting to know them before I work with them in person. This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, I’m thrilled to meet with and see a performance by Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys, Louisiana’s Creole zydeco innovators. But before I get into Broussard’s indelible contributions to the Creole and zydeco traditions, let’s take a peek at the history of zydeco music and dance.

 A Very Brief History of Zydeco

Zydeco music has its roots in the Creole tradition of rural Louisiana. After World War II, Creole musicians began incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll that they heard on the radio and jukeboxes into Creole party music, which is referred to by some as “la-la.” Since that time, zydeco has continuously evolved and incorporated influences from myriad musical genres. Yet it maintains its character through instrumentation centered on the accordion and rubboard, the latter of which drives zydeco’s strong syncopated rhythms.

Zydeco’s specific rhythm lends itself to a traditional type of dance, also called zydeco. Reader, now is the time to put on those cowboy boots! Done in either a “closed position” (meaning you and your partner stay connected) or “club style” (done with an “open style” variety of lead-and-follow improvised variations), the music is counted in eights:  slow/quick/quick, slow/quick/quick, with accompanying footwork: step pause/step/step. No matter which style of zydeco you prefer, it’s all about having a good time. And what better place to practice your newly honed zydeco skills than at this week’s concert? We’re even laying down a dance floor!

Check out this informative, easy-to-follow zydeco instructional video.

Jeffery Broussard, Innovator and Preserver of the Zydeco Tradition

Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys are one of very few bands who still play traditional Creole music and also seamlessly incorporate contemporary zydeco into their repertoire. Born into a zydeco legacy, Broussard is the youngest son (and one of ten other siblings… I can only imagine what the line for the bathroom was like in the Broussard household) of the renowned zydeco vocalist and accordionist Delton Broussard.  At the tender age of eight, Jeffery began playing drums in his father’s band, the Lawtell Playboys.

Continue reading